Tempted by Despair; Choosing Hope

And just as I’ve set my resolve to Take Care and to Be Kind for the holidays, just as we’ve decked our halls humming fa-la-la-la-la, I find myself with a weight on my chest and a lump in my throat.

It’s December 1, the first Sunday in Advent, and I am sitting here talking myself away from the ledge of despair. Why? One innocent Instagram post suggested that my hopes might be disappointed — that all my resolve-setting, and hall-decking might not end up in joyful reunions, restored celebrations, or a meeting of healed hearts.

After all of our healing work and intentionality, we might still find ourselves broken.

I can’t bear to face that reality. I can’t imagine the possibility of another holiday sprinkled with tears and punctuated by slammed doors followed by hours of silence. But I am beginning to imagine it, just as I was beginning to have hope.

I was beginning to picture smiling embraces, laughter at the table, and intimate conversations filled with sustained eye contact. In my mind, I saw four generations sharing stories, sitting closely, leaning in. I imagined games and coloring and gifts and food. I saw tenderness, forgiveness, cuddling, and love.

These images were born out of longing — a longing for restoration, for healing, for reconciliation, for an end to a long, long season of grief.

All year, we’ve been removing layers of mourners’ clothing — a black veil here, a grey dress there — and we’ve been eyeing the party gowns in the closet. Do we dare to hope that we might be celebrating? That we might kill the fatted calf, invite all the neighbors, and make a feast to announce the return of joy?

We’ve prepared rooms — fluffed all the pillows, set out new towels, and lined the manger with straw — but what if no one comes? Or what if they come, and they leave disappointed?

What if the gifts are not right, the food too much (or too little), the conversations strained, and the accommodations inadequate? What if there is no joy?

I can’t, I won’t entertain those doubts.

I won’t feed my longing with manufactured images of despair. I won’t, sitting here hungry, imagine a table filled with rancid food. I will hold onto hope.

We’ll prepare the space, hold onto hope, and wait.

Sarah Bessey wrote on her blog this weekend: Advent simply means “coming” – so for me, it is about the waiting. When people talk about “living in the tension” I think of Advent. It’s the time when we prepare to celebrate his birth and we also acknowledge that we are waiting here still for every tear to be wiped away.

And as I’m waiting for them to be wiped away, they just keep coming.

We’ve come so far! We have seen evidence that all things are being made new — the blind receive their sight, the sick are made well, we’ve had good news preached to us, and then one Instagram post can send me reeling.

I spiral quickly from choosing hope to drowning in despair.

Like Sarah Bessey, I need my Saviour who suffers with us, my God who weeps, who longs to gather us to himself as a mother hen gathers her chicks.

I need to be gathered, just as I long to gather my own, to hold them close, to provide warmth and comfort, and to feel their warmth and their comfort.

I am longing for that warmth. That comfort.

Advent is for the ones who know longing, says Sarah Bessey.

And, if she’s writing about longing, she probably is familiar with it — that ache, that desire, that wake-you-up-in-the-middle-of-the-night hunger for wholeness, for healing, for restoration.

I’ve been so caught up — for actual years now — in longing for the restoration of my family and for healing for those I love, for peace in our world, for an end to violence, poverty, hunger, and pain. I’ve been feeling my brokenness.

We’re all broken — every last one of us.

We all are longing to be made whole, aren’t we? We’re longing for all things to be made new. We are watching in the distance for the arrival of a Savior who, we trust, is coming to gather us into His arms.

And He. Is. Coming.

In fact, He is here. He is already making everything new. We see evidence all around us — when long-lost friends reunite, when we share small kindnesses with strangers, when we realize we are forgiven.

We rejoice when we see these glimmers of hope, and we will celebrate even more when we finally see every broken piece put back into place.

We will see every broken piece put back into place.

And in the mean time, we’ll deck our halls, fluff our pillows, and make some room.

And I will continue to hope, even if reality doesn’t meet my expectation — if my gifts are all wrong, the food doesn’t turn out, and if everyone leaves disappointed. Because although I am longing for restoration, I know that it comes in ways that I don’t always expect and that I don’t always recognize.

Small glimmers accumulate over time…and then all at once, He wipes every tear from our eyes.

I will not lose hope, because Hope. Has. Come.

And He is coming again.

He who testifies to these things says, “Surely I am coming soon.” Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!

Revelation 22:20

Off the couch, at the table

Trying something new. Click above to listen to me read this post.

I recently wrote a post, On and Off the Couch, which was both an acknowledgement that I had been grieving some substantial losses for quite some time and an announcement that I was ready to move away from that period. A recent experience helped me take the first steps.

While I was still sitting on my dilapidated pleather couch, the University of Michigan reached out to me — would I be willing to participate in a study the Nursing School was conducting? The participation requirements were that you a) be over 50, b) have a chronic illness, and c) have a wifi connection. The study would take 6-8 weeks, and upon completion, I would receive a $150 gift card.

Well, why not? Since I’ve lived in this little house by the river, I have been open to experimentation. In fact, I once even called myself a lab rat! What did I have to lose? The goal of the study is to determine if ongoing nursing care can impact the lives of those with chronic illness. Let’s find out.

Going into the study, I was picturing that a nurse would come to my house, clipboard in hand, checking boxes to make sure that my home environment was safe. I was guessing that she would give me some tasks to do. I knew that I would be expected to make a voice recording every day and to meet with my nurse via video conference once a week.

I was not anticipating being nudged off the couch and supported into a new rhythm of life. I did not see that coming.

Yes, I was ready. The couch was sodden from all the tears I had shed on it and was practically disintegrating under me. I could see that I was going to have to stand up soon, but I gotta tell you, I was still pretty comfortable, so I was lingering for as long as possible.

Then in walked this nurse, who sat across the table from me, asking me some non-threatening questions and inviting me to set some goals. What types of change was I interested in making, she asked.

I told her all the changes I had already made — practicing yoga, avoiding gluten and dairy (and now corn), and writing every day. I said, “If there is any stone that has yet to be turned over, it is probably addressing my weight. Since chronic illness benched me from running in 2013, I have gradually put on about 10 pounds.”

I wouldn’t say I am overweight, but I am not overly thrilled with the way I look, even if by lifestyle I have diminished most of the symptoms of my illness and I feel the best I’ve felt in years. I keep trying to decide if I should just be content and accept this as how I look as a 50-something woman, or if I should try to make a change.

I don’t overeat. I do yoga usually five or more days a week, and I often go for a 20-30 minute walk sometime during the day. What more could I do to drop some of this weight?

“Maybe,” I suggested to the nurse, “my husband and I need to stop eating our dinner on the couch in front of the TV. Maybe we should go back to eating dinner at the table.”

I cringed as I said it. I didn’t want to make this commitment. We had established quite a rhythm during the Season of the Couch. Come home, utter a few words to one another, fill our plates, and plunk down in front a string of meaningless shows. It was quite comfortable. We were together, after all, and we didn’t need to say a lot. Couldn’t we just continue coexisting in our misery?

But I knew, I knew, it was a change that needed to happen.

We were the ones who, when our children were small, ate all our meals at the table. We all ate a big breakfast together before the kids left for school and he left for work. Those who were home with me ate lunch at the table. At dinner, we all gathered for a sit down meal — no matter how fatigued we were, how distressing the conversations got, or how many glasses of milk were spilled (typically three). Although it was sometimes stressful, we valued the face time this gave us as a family.

Even when the kids were teens, we still made an effort to eat breakfast in close proximity to one another (maybe standing with a bagel or a bowl of cereal in hand) and come together for dinner. I’d be lying if I said that every meal was blissful and meaningful — they were not. However, this rhythm allowed a check-in, a reading of the temperature of the room, a moment to gauge the health of the family and the individuals in it. It was sometimes difficult to look all that hurt straight on, but we continued.

I think when we moved — just the two of us — to this little house by the river, we started out at the table. It was natural. He was working all day, and I was taking some time off. Making dinner and setting the table gave me a project in the afternoon. We would sit across from one another, sharing a re-telling of the day, making plans for the upcoming weekend, or discussing a planned purchase or a current event.

But when our bottom fell out and we found ourselves scrambling for something to hold onto, we landed on the sectional in the living room, plates in hands, eating quietly, and watching Jeopardy or Law and Order. It was a comfort to be together, not talking, just existing in our grief.

So we stayed there.

Until I uttered those words, “maybe we need to stop eating our dinner on the couch in front of the TV.”

When I said them, the nurse asked me, “Will your husband be open to that?”

“Well,” I said, “I think he’ll initially grumble a little, but I think he knows we need this change, too. I think he’ll be on board,”

And he was. When I told him my goals, he gave a sigh, then said, “Yeah, I’m in.”

We started that evening. I made dinner, we filled our plates, and instead of walking toward the couch, we sat at the table, across from each other, and practiced having conversation over dinner.

“What was your day like?”

“Have you spoken to any of the kids today?”

“How are your parents doing?”

It was a little awkward at first, using those conventions that we hadn’t used in quite a while, but over time, we remembered how to have a conversation over dinner. We found the rhythm of clearing our plates and putting away leftovers together. We discovered that we can watch a television show or two in the evening rather than scrolling through several.

It might not seem like a big deal, but it was one of the first steps in getting us off the couch and out of the season of grieving.

I met my nurse, Karen, about six weeks ago. My husband and I have carried our plates to the living room three times since then. All of the other nights we’ve eaten together at a table, either at home together or out with friends or family.

We’re talking to each other; we’re laughing. It sometimes feels like we’re celebrating.

And, in a sense we are. Our reason for grieving hasn’t changed, but we have reason to hope that God is in the process of making all things new.

I haven’t lost any weight — not the kind that can be weighed on the scale. Instead, I’ve found some joy that I was beginning to think I wouldn’t feel again.

It seems to me that ongoing nursing care can make a difference in the lives of people with chronic illness (and chronic grief). I’m thankful to Karen and the University of Michigan Nursing School for giving me the opportunity to participate in this study.

I’m not sure this is the kind of change they were hoping to make, but it was the kind of change that we needed.

I will turn their mourning into joy;

    I will comfort them, and give them gladness for sorrow.”

Jeremiah 31:13

On and Off the Couch

Five years ago, when I moved into the little house by the river, I was exhausted and physically ill. For the first time probably since my childhood, I gave myself permission to plop on the couch and be unproductive. I didn’t come to this on my own — my medical team had advised it, and my husband had supported it. I needed some time to let my body recover from years of hard work. I needed to exit crisis mode and hit ‘reset’.

This is no news to you if you’ve read my blog — in fact, one of the reasons I began to write was that I was, for the first time in over thirty years, not going to be working or caring for children. I had no idea what I would do with myself if I didn’t come up with a daily task. And, writing proved, as you might have guessed, one of the means for healing. The pouring out of thoughts onto a page allows them to be seen and felt. In the seeing and feeling, the healing begins.

So, the first layer of healing began with time on the couch and a commitment to writing. I spent a lot of time on the couch (and in bed, and in a chair, and on the floor). I drank countless cups of tea and have now written over 400 blog posts in addition to the countless pages that I have written in spiral notebooks and journals in the past few years.

That decision to spend some time on the couch and to commit time to writing every day laid the foundation for a much more thorough mental and spiritual healing that would follow the initial physical healing. I didn’t know it at the time, but the first six months in the little house by the river, was a dress rehearsal for the next several years.

In addition to the physical fatigue and illness that I brought with me to Ann Arbor, our whole family also carried with us some deep wounds from years of dysfunction. Some of that dysfunction was not too atypical — a family doing too much, trying too hard, and overlooking critical moments and emotions in the frenzy of day-to-day living. However, some larger issues were less than typical– eating disorder, depression, alcoholism, and sexual assault. And even writing the words, I realize that though these were devastating, they are not as atypical as I would like to believe.

And I think that’s part of the reason I keep writing about them. Sure, it is hard to admit that our family — the one for which I had high hopes for perfection — suffered in ways that we had never expected, but just as surely, pain happens to everyone. Every one of us suffer.

And so, when, a couple years into life in this house by the river, we looked our pain full in the face and crawled back onto the couch and cried and cried and cried. I didn’t stop writing. I didn’t retreat into my room, as I had in the past, to “close the door and draw the blinds”. I didn’t want to air each of our private pains publicly, but I also didn’t want to hide the fact that we were indeed hurting. I am not sure it was a conscious choice at the time — after all, I was lying wounded on the side of the road bandaged and bleeding; how much clarity can you have in that situation? However, I believe I instinctively knew that my recovery was dependent on my writing — writing that was honest and transparent.

I didn’t write the details — I guess each of us can fill in our own. We can all find ourselves on the couch, immobilized, hurting, and in need of a re-set.

And I am here to tell you that resets happen. People get off couches. They start walking. They begin to smile. They feel hope again.

It doesn’t come quickly. Some people find themselves plunked in a great big sectional sofa for a couple of years or more. In fact, they’ve been there so long that the sofa itself takes on an appearance of grief, anguish, and decay, and they hardly notice. They sink into dilapidation, and it feels like home. So they stay there, watching Netflix night after night after night.

But slowly, gradually, light starts peeking in from behind the blinds, and they start to notice that the couch is visibly tired of performing this service.

It’s served its term.

So they stand up. They start taking walks, dreaming dreams, and envisioning a world where every day isn’t laden with grief. They start picturing places that exist away from the couch — places inhabited by people and experiences and opportunities. Venturing out seems a little daunting at first, so they proceed with caution — a coffee date here, a shopping trip there.

Soon they realize they are meeting in groups outside of their home, not only to gather support to sustain them in their long hours on the couch, but also to share support, love, and friendship. They discover they have energy for a walk before dinner, shopping in the afternoon, and rearranging the furniture.

But that sectional takes up so much space — what with the grief lying all over it, spilling over the edges.

It’s got to go.

It’s all part of the reset. Room must be made for the new — new experiences, new dreams, new life.

So out it goes.

And just like that, a weight is lifted. A corner is turned. A brightness is felt.

Imagine the possibilities of life away from the couch. A life of dinners at the table, of walking in the park, of meeting up with friends. Of laughter, of joy.

I am here to tell you that resets happen.

I am here to tell you that I am off the couch.

Now –if you’re slunk down in the cushions, chest sprinkled with potato chip crumbs, staring at a television playing mindless shows with laugh tracks, I have not one ounce of judgment for you. I only offer this: when you have cried countless tears and lain awake long nights, when you have thought that you will never feel joy again, hold on.

It may be a while, but the light will peek in from behind the blinds, and you, too, will find yourself rising from the couch. You’ll start walking. You’ll find yourself smiling. You will again begin to feel hope.

I will turn their mourning into joy; I will comfort them, and give them gladness for sorrow.

Jeremiah 31:13

We are all Learning

It was an extraordinary day that I’ve been thinking about for a week.

It started when one of the people I love called me at 7 am to admit a failure at work. Some words had been spouted toward a coworker — the kind that aren’t easily called back. Supervisors had gotten involved and, rather than meting out punishment, had normalized the situation saying something like, “We are all learning. We want to support you as you grow through this.”

As I hung up that phone call, a nurse arrived at my door. I’ve agreed to be part of a study in which I set some goals to improve my health or quality of life, I track my progress, and this nurse follows my path, provides coaching and encouragement, and we see what happens.

Perfectionist that I tend to be — I immediately identified a few habits that I am ashamed of and stated my intention of eliminating them. The nurse, fellow human that she is, reminded me that we are just setting goals — some days we will meet them, some days we won’t. That’s how life is.

We are all learning. Not one of us has it all together. She wants to support me as I grow through this.

When the nurse left, I started listening to a sermon I’d missed a few days prior. We’ve been in a series on Exodus for several weeks, hearing about the Israelites’ journey through slavery, the plagues God used against Pharoah, and — this week — the miraculous rescue of the Israelites.

They’d been suffering in slavery for four hundred years and just like that, he swoops in with shock and awe and delivers them out of slavery.

And you have to ask yourself why? Why did He wait so long?

And then, once he had parted the Red Sea and delivered them from the Egyptians, why did He allow them to wander in the wilderness for an additional 40 years? Couldn’t He have spared them so much pain? Didn’t He see their difficulty? Couldn’t He tell they were lost?

And questions like that lead me to why? why did you let me continue in my soldiering for so. damn. long. Why didn’t you send a messenger much earlier? Wouldn’t you have spared us all so much pain? Didn’t you see the difficulty? Didn’t you see the looming consequences? Couldn’t you tell we were lost?

And I hear our pastor, Gabe Kasper, say, “In the difficulty of the wilderness, God shapes His people…God will place us in difficult circumstances, in challenging situations, in order to shape and form our character…and to strengthen our faith.”

We are all learning. Only One of us has it all figured out. He wants to support us as we grow through this.

I can see it. I can. I can see how through that difficulty my character has been formed. The most desperate of situations have pressed me to make new choices, live differently, and see clearly. They have, indeed, strengthened my faith.

I was lying on the table of my physical therapist the other morning, chatting about some recent develops in the long journey we are on, when she said, “When the student is ready, the teacher appears.”

I’m ready.

As the Israelites stood next to the not-yet-parted Red Sea, the Egyptian army bearing down upon them, Moses said, “Fear not. Stand firm. And see the salvation of the Lord which He will work for you today. The Lord will fight for you; you have only to be silent.”

I have only to be silent.

I was sitting in an instructional meeting at work — me, an educator for the last thirty years — and I found myself being challenged to consider how my tone, my energy, and my language can motivate or demotivate my students. How the nuance of my voice, its inflection, and my message can make or break a lesson. The presenter said that we should use language that is calm, neutral, and assertive to direct our students toward their tasks. We should use messages like, “Read this paragraph, starting here,” in a calm tone, as we point to the page and then wait expectantly. When we give a clear direction and the space to respond, we provide safety — a secure spot for our students to step into.

And safety is everything!

Knowing I am safe, emboldens me to take a chance — try reading the words or even make a mistake. If I feel safe, I can try, because I don’t fear judgment or punishment or embarrassment. When I’m given direction from a calm, neutral, assertive voice, I don’t feel bribed, used, or threatened. I feel free.

The nurse from the study spoke in a calm, neutral voice, offering reassurance as we wrote out my goals. She showed me how to record my progress and scheduled our visits for the next eight weeks when she will check in and offer support.

I breathe easily, I know I’ll be ok whether I meet my goals or not — whether I walk more, watch less television, or sit on the couch all day.

Moses (perhaps in a calm, neutral voice) said, “Fear not. Stand firm. And see the salvation of the Lord which He will work for you today. The Lord will fight for you; you have only to be silent.” The Israelites bravely stood there; the Red Sea was parted, and they walked through on dry ground to safety. When their pursuers followed, the sea un-parted and swallowed them up.

Now, long story short, the Israelites didn’t immediately apply all the lessons they’d learned from their time in slavery or from this amazing rescue, so they ended up wandering around in the wilderness for an additional 40 years, so that God could continue to shape them and turn their hearts back to Him.

And, coincidentally, after my rescue from the soldiering years, I did not immediately apply all the lessons I learned, so I ended up walking through some additional challenges through which God has continued to shape me and turn my heart back to Him.

Just yesterday, our pastor delivered the truth that I’ve been clinging to– the words that let me know I’m safe and that I can step into this learning day after day — “God in His sovereignty is in control of whatever situation I am in.” He, the one who has been with me through the soldiering, through every difficulty, through every rescue, through every lesson, is in control.

He keeps showing up because He wants me to know that He is the Lord my God. He knows I’m just learning, and He wants to support me as I grow through this.

He brought me out into a spacious place; he rescued me because he delighted in me.

2 Sam 22:20

Game Tapes

A couple of weeks ago, the Michigan State Spartans, in the last moments of a tight game against the Arizona State Sun Devils, attempted a field goal to tie the game and send it into overtime. Although Matt Coghlin put the ball cleanly through the goal posts, the field goal was disqualified because the Spartans had twelve men (rather than eleven) on the field at the time of the kick. They were given a five yard penalty before another shot at the kick, but Coghlin’s second attempt went wide right. The Sun Devils won the game 10-7.

It wasn’t until the next day, after countless replays of the game tape, that officials admitted that a Sun Devil defender had illegally leapt over the Spartan offensive line during the second field goal attempt which should have resulted in a fifteen yard penalty and a third attempt at the field goal. The referees had missed the call.

If the Spartans would’ve only had eleven men on the field, if Coghlin would’ve made the second field goal attempt, or if the officials would’ve seen the violation, MSU would’ve tied the game and sent it into overtime.

They should’ve had that chance because they should’ve only had 11 on the field, Coghlin should’ve made that kick, and the officials should’ve seen the violation.

I wonder if any players, coaches, or refs have replayed those tapes and thought to themselves that it could’ve gone much differently. The Spartans could’ve had a win. The Sun Devils could’ve lost.

But all the would’ve, should’ve, and could’ve won’t turn back the clock and change the result. It is what it is. What happened happened.

We watch ‘game tapes’, too, don’t we? We rewind to times of difficulty, loss, or failure and review in slow motion the exact moment where things might’ve gone differently. We try deleting scenes and inserting new clips, but it doesn’t work. The film is indelible. It is what it is. What happened happened.

My husband and I recently took a trip to St. Louis, mostly so that he could officiate at a wedding, but also so that we could bear witness to some old films. We lived in St. Louis for ten years, and surely we had moments of both victory and defeat, but it probably won’t surprise you to learn that our eyes were drawn to the twelve-men-on-the-field/missed-field-goal moments and not as as much to times of celebraton.

A drive through our old neighborhood pressed play on events surrounding our unspoken broken — memories of what we witnessed, what we missed, and what we can’t change. A stop at a traffic light on a busy road called forth images of a broken down car, a frantic teen, and a failure to understand the layers of pain underneath the surface. A walk through our old grocery store took me right back to the soldiering days of fitting in shopping between school and workouts and dance lessons and soccer games.

What a harried life we led. We were doing so much and moving so fast, that we didn’t take the time to assess the damages along the way. We didn’t watch the game tapes in the moment, so we kept making the same mistakes over and over again.

And now that I’ve finally taken the time to view the tapes, I can’t seem to look away. I rewind again and again, slowly analyzing missteps, oversights, and outright failures. I get trapped in regret and what ifs and I feel myself spiraling downward into a bottomless sea of grief.

If only I would’ve when I should’ve than I could’ve.

But I can’t. It is what it is. What happened happened.

On our recent trip to St. Louis, we grieved, but we also went to lunch with good friends, had coffee with former neighbors, and spent the day with former ministry partners who might as well be family. Our loved ones sat with us in our reality as we showed them clips of our game tapes — the grief and the celebrations. We laughed, we cried, and we dreamed.

We can’t go back and rewrite what happened, so how do we move forward?

I’m quite confident that Mark D’antonio called his team in for a film session on the Monday after the Arizona State game and, with them, analyzed each play — each one that worked, each one that didn’t. I’m confident they had a moment revisiting the twelve men on the field situation and the failure of the refs to make the call that would’ve given them one more try. I’m sure they clarified lessons learned and strategies to try again. And then, I’m confident, they put the film away.

And we’re trying to do that, too. We don’t want to delete our films; they hold too much. However, we can choose, after having looked their reality straight on, after having acknowledged our roles, counted our losses, and seen our strengths, to archive them. We can put them away in the vault for safekeeping. We don’t want to forget what happened, or deny it, because all of life changes us, informs us, softens us, propels us.

The Spartans couldn’t stay steeped in regret or what ifs; they had to move on. The next game was days away, and if they allowed themselves to swirl downward into the pit of despair, they would be missing an opportunity to prepare for their next challenge, their next game, their next opportunity.

And that’s what I’m trying to do now. I’m trying to prepare for the next challenge, the next game, the next opportunity. I’ve analyzed the mistakes, I’ve dwelt in the what ifs, and now I’m going to try to move forward differently.

Slowly. With intention. Eyes wide open.

I’m looking for redemption and restoration. And won’t He just do it?


Though you have made me see troubles, many and bitter, you will restore my life again; from the depths of the earth you will again bring me up.

Psalm 71:20

A return to the story

Walking through the grocery store, I heard a ping, then another, then another. I looked toward the sound and saw a woman grabbing her phone, looking at the screen, then smiling. She put the phone down and continued pushing her cart down the aisle. I saw her several more times as I made my way through the store. Each time, it was because I heard the ping first. Her phone was calling her attention, and it caught mine, too.

As I pulled into campus where we live, I drove past a half a dozen teenagers who had just finished rowing practice on the river that flows behind our house. Waiting for their rides, they sat in a silent clump, all hunched over their phones.

I get lost in my phone, too. In fact, as I sat next to my mom yesterday, watching a football game, I was scrolling mindlessly — looking at social media, checking email, Googling to fact-check.

We’re on our phones all the time. We’re always taking in information– seeing what’s going on in the world– trying not to miss anything. We read, we post, we comment. Much of our daily life revolves around our phones.

My attention has been drawn to our phones over the last few days as I’ve simultaneously been hearing a narrative in the settings I’ve found myself in. From a collection of very diverse voices I am hearing the same words in a resounding cacophony: The world we live in today..so much violence.. hurricanes… fires…total destruction… racism… sexism… broken systems ..crime… poverty… corruption…. what can we do? It’s terrible…

Terrible…

Terrible…

And you know, I think the fact that we are continuously scrolling through our cell phones (or sitting in front of our televisions), is related to this narrative –this growing societal anxiety. If we are frantic — about the weather, the environment, crime, money, scandal — then we continue to scroll. When we scroll, our anxiety increases. What can be done? It’s terrible!

The cycle is self-perpetuating.

And we’re becoming a culture of reeling, hand-wringing, panicking worriers, chanting with the masses, “It’s no use! We’re doomed! This is surely the end of the world!”

And, to be fair, these issues are real. and significant. and scary.

I’ve found myself reeling and worrying, too.

Friday morning, as I was writing out three pages of mind-dump, I cried out, “Lord, help! Lord, lead! Lord, please!”

Not long after, I was listening to a sermon I missed recently, which centered on the text in Exodus 1-2 where Pharaoh was ordering that the Israelite slaves be beaten and that their babies be murdered, a time when certainly the people were reeling, wringing their hands, and panicking. As I pictured the slaughter of innocents, I heard our pastor read these words:

We read scripture in order to be refreshed in our memory and understanding of the story within which we ourselves are actors, to be reminded where it has come from and where it is going to, and hence what our own part within it ought to be.”

NT Wright

I got kinda choked up, and I leaned in.

As I listened to the rest of the sermon, I remembered how God had shown up for the Israelites, how He had miraculously delivered them from the hands of the Egyptians, how he had saved even little baby Moses as he bobbed down the stream in a basket made of reeds. I felt a peace wash over me as I remembered that the God who rescued Moses and the Israelites is the same God who hears me as I “cry out” on the pages of my notebook.

The same God who heard David and Hannah and Mary and Peter.

I am part of a bigger story — a story that was written before the beginning of time, a story that has a beginning, a middle, and an end.

An end! Guys, we already know the end!

Last weekend, my granddaughter wanted me to watch a “scary movie”. When I told her that I don’t like scary movies, she said, “It’s ok, Oma, I will sit next to you and cover your eyes if you get really scared.” So, figuring that I’d probably be ok if a four year old was coaching me into bravery, I agreed. Throughout the movie, whenever a scary part came up, she put her little hand on my glasses so that I wouldn’t get too frightened. Toward the end of the movie, the scariest part of all, she narrated for me ahead of time exactly what was going to happen so that I would know in advance that everything was going to be ok in the end.

And guys, we already know that even if it gets pretty darn scary, it is all going to be ok in the end.

“See, Oma, I told you!”

Sometimes we need to return to the story, remind ourselves how it all turns out, where the story has come from, where it is going, and what our part within it ought to be.

So I listened to that sermon. Twice. (Click here if you’d like to hear it.)

Then, I turned on Pandora and heard these lyrics:

The weapon may be formed, but it won’t prosper.
When the darkness falls, it won’t prevail.
Cause the God I serve knows only how to triumph;
My God will never fail.”

“See a Victory” Elevation Worship

Hundreds of times during the day, I check my phone — for texts, for calls, for updated news, for weather reports. Just once every morning, I return to scripture as I drive into work. And I wonder why I feel a bit unsettled and somewhat frantic. My dosage is off. I’m taking in too much frenzy and not enough fact. And when I do that, I can forget.

I can forget that:

I was lost, ’til You called me out by name
And I was down, ’til You picked me up again
And I was wrong, ’til Your love it made me right
I was dead, ’til You sang me back to life.”

“Garments” Cory Asbury

When I return to the story — not only the story of scripture, but the story of God’s faithfulness in my own life — when I see where it has come from and where it is going, I start to wonder what my role within this grand story might be. I wonder if my role is to join the masses in frantic scrolling, hand-wringing, and worrying, or if it is to continue to return to the story, to remember that I already know the ending, and to live a life a hopefulness — a life that knows that times get dark and scary, but it’s going to be ok in the end.

Because guys, we live within a story that has been crafted by the Author and Creator of life. He has designed for each of us a life of hope and significance. Each of us matters before Him, and we have the great privilege to live into that truth and to share that truth with all of our fellow scrolling, hand-wringing sojourners.

We are not a people without hope.

We are a people who know the story of how God has been kind and merciful to His people over and over again — in the direst of circumstances: famine, flood, subjugation, tyranny. We have seen Him provide for us, connect to us, and lead us.

We know how the story ends.

Death is all around us
We are not afraid
Written is the story
Empty is the grave.”

“This Dust” Kip Fox

Let’s keep returning to the story; we’re gonna be ok.

Do Something!

On Sunday August 4, 2019, Ohio Governor Mark DeWine addressed a crowd on the same day that a mass shooting killed 9 and left 27 injured. He had just barely begun to speak when someone shouted, “Do something!” Before long, many had joined the chant, “Do something! Do something!”

DeWine was moved to action. Within 48 hours, he had proposed several changes to gun laws including a red flag law and universal background checks; his initiatives also included measures related to education and mental health. He announced his actions saying, “We must do something.”

Now that is what I’m talking about.

The people in that Dayton crowd, along with many others, are done with hand-wringing and weeping. They are tired of excuses and finger-pointing. They have seen enough bloodshed, and they are demanding change.

“Do Something!” they yell, and I find myself joining their cries, “Do Something! Do Something!”

Last week I wrote about prayer — the lifting up of our burdens to the One who is able to change everything.

I’m not taking that back.

Pray. Keep praying. Never stop praying.

But here’s the thing, we can pray with our breath and our movements at that same time that we are doing something.

Yes, we can have dedicated times of solitude, where we go in our prayer closets or lie on our beds and cry out to God. Do that! However, you can also put your prayers into motion. Much like you talk to a friend as you go for a run, drive down the road, or cook a meal, you can continue in conversation with God as you do something about the things you are lifting up to Him.

You can cry, “Do you see this, God? Two hundred forty-six people have been killed in mass shootings in the United States this year,” while you are demonstrating in front of a governor, or writing a letter to your congressman, or donating money for mental health resources in your community or educational services at your local school.

You can say, “Lord, I’m really worried about the environment, I beg for your mercy and the renewal of our planet,” as you ride on public transportation, use cloth shopping bags, or carry your compost outside.

You can sob, “I’m begging you to heal my broken relationships,” as you encourage the people you encounter every day, as you go to therapy to process your regrets and learn healthier strategies, as you do your best to rebuild relationships.

We can be people of prayer and still do something. We can do more than put on sackcloth and ashes, grieving the loss of a life we once knew. We can speak out and fight for change. We can defend the defenseless, call out the unjust, and offer solutions.

We can engage in conversations about politics — ask the hard questions, admit that we don’t have all the answers, and even change our minds.

We can volunteer in our communities — working with the homeless, tutoring public school kids, or leading clean-up projects.

We can support the people in our neighborhoods — being available, providing resources, dropping off flowers or meals.

I don’t know what your gifts are, but even while you are praying, you can do something.

Why should you? Why should you expend any effort? What difference is one person going to make any way? The problems we face are big — almost insurmountable — rampant gun violence, a drug epidemic, a decaying environment, a world-wide sex trafficking network, an immigration crisis, our dysfunctional families, and our own broken hearts.

We could crawl into our beds, cover our heads with blankets, and weep as we cry out, “Come, Lord Jesus, Come.”

But, friends, He isn’t here yet, and He is inviting us to do something.

I am not suggesting that you strap on your gear and go about butt-kicking and name-taking. Instead, I am suggesting a mindful, prayerful approach to action.

You and I can consider the items we are continually lifting up in prayer: a family member with health concerns, a strained relationship, personal debt, the environment, racial disparity, and violence against women, for example.

As we lift us these concerns, we can be asking, “What difference can I make? What is one thing that I can do? How can I help?” And we will begin to see opportunities: we can make a phone call to encourage that family member, we can respect the requests of the one who just needs some time and space, we can pay off some bills and move toward financial freedom, we can decide to buy fewer products packaged with plastic, we can vote for proposals that promote equity, or volunteer at a local women’s shelter. We can do something.

We don’t have to do everything, but we can each do something.

Imagine the impact of 10 people consistently choosing to do one thing toward improving a neighborhood, of 100 people dedicated to just one action to decrease homelessness, of 1000 people committed to improving the lives of children living in poverty.

You could be the start of transformational change, if you just decide that you are going to do something.

For the past few years I’ve been looking for something big to do. As I’ve been sorting through the broken pieces of my life, I keep trying to put them together into one redemptive action that will somehow turn my tears into wine. I want to end poverty and violence and heal all the broken hearts. I want a project, a mission, a cause.

And as I lift the broken pieces up in prayer, I hear a still small voice saying, “you don’t need to single-handedly change the world, Kristin, but you can do something. How about you just start with one small thing?”

But there is so much that needs changing!

“Behold, I am making all things new.”

I want to help!

“Act justly, love mercy, walk humbly.”

Ok. I hear you. I’ll start small, but I’ll dream big.

I’m praying that others will pick their one small thing and join me.

Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men.”

Colossians 3:23

The Great Crowd

When I was about twelve years old, I sat on a folding chair at a long table in confirmation class watching my pastor draw a line — probably 10 or 12 feet long — on the chalk board. He said, “Imagine all of eternity as this long, long line. If this line fully represented eternity, it would keep going beyond both ends of this board and never end.” I listened attentively and mentally extended the line and put little math class arrows on both ends. He then, with one quick dab of his chalk, touched the line and said, “your life is that dot.”

I have no idea, forty years later, what the context of this illustration was. He probably intended to convey the power of God to exist beyond my little arrows, but I missed all that. I had already, way before age twelve, lain awake at night pondering the vastness of eternity — how, I wondered, would I endure a never-ending life in heaven? What did never-ending even look like? I imagined myself floating in a vast black expanse and I was terrified.

Such thoughts kept me awake at night.

But this, this image of my dot-long-life compared to the expansive line of all eternity shifted the focus of my fear from that endless expanse of time to the insignificance of my life. I was one little dot. God must care very little for me — just one of many million dot-sized-lives. How in the world could he hear my prayers? Certainly my voice would be drowned in the cacophony.

Those thoughts could keep me awake, too.

Eternity and and my relative insignificance in its scope are difficult concepts to grapple with, so I learned over time to mentally place all such thoughts in a mental file marked, “to be understood later”. With those images safely tucked away, I have avoided wakeful nights fearfully spiraling alone in the dark expanse.

Not too long ago, my current pastor was teaching from Revelation (hear the sermon here). The content of Revelation, like the topic of eternity, has also been for me fairly daunting, what with all the beasts and horses and blood and fire. Unable (or perhaps unwilling) to wrap my mind around the imagery and symbolism, I typically place all Revelation-y thoughts in that same closed file folder –“to be understood later.”

So when our pastor said that he was going to “explain” a passage of Revelation and then share the application, I may have mentally rolled my eyes. I was already prepared to stash this sermon, too, in the file. However, as he used the language of Revelation to paint a new image of eternity, I felt compelled to take some notes.

An image that stood out was of the church — the collection of all believers in Christ — which he said is spread over time and space and is enduring into eternity, strong and clothed in majesty. As he spoke, I saw images of my grandparents and their parents and grandparents and all the parents and grandparents of all the people I know and love and many that I did not know, spreading out in all directions from me into time and space. I saw all these hundreds and thousands as though they were standing in the dark sky among the stars, a great cloud of witnesses — witnesses who had endured all the attacks of the evil one, all the traumas of their years, all the distractions of their days –bearing witness among the stars.

I imagined them cheering me on, like spectators that line the course at a marathon. They were standing resolute, watching my journey and saying together, “Come on! Come on!”

It dawned on me that they had already run this course — they knew what was coming, the challenges I would face, the relief that would be provided, and how far I was from the finish.

I shouted at them in disbelief, “Really? You finished? You made it?”

“Yes! Keep going! You can do it!”

“Easy for you to say! Can’t you see I’m struggling here?”

“We struggled, too!”

“You did?”

“Of course…sometimes for long stretches.”

“This has been a very long stretch. I’m tired.”

“He’s got you! You’ll make it!”

I turned my eyes back toward the road, pressed forward by their voices. Of course they were right. My difficulties are not beyond what is common to man, surely I have not be given more than I could bear.

“Keep your eyes up. Relief is coming!”

What had I been thinking, that I was the only one who struggled? Did I think my challenges were more difficult than those of anyone else?

I glanced to my right and saw an older man, sweat band across his forehead, eyelids at half-mast, jaw slack. His faded singlet exposed his thin, leathery arms. His feet, in worn trainers, pounded the pavement wearily, one step after the other.

In front of me, I saw a pony-tailed girl, clad in neon-orange and fresh kicks, trotting beside her dad who intermittently dispensed encouragement: “Gatorade just ahead….drop your shoulders and that cramp will go away…you’re doing great!” She determinedly pumped her arms, believing his words.

What had I been thinking? That the road would be easy? Hadn’t I expected that it would take work, focus, and determination? Hadn’t I realized that life is full of ups and downs, unexpected turns, and difficult paths? Where had I gotten the message that if I got it right, I could avoid trouble, tragedy, and pain?

Why hadn’t I realized that my focus should not be on avoiding trouble, but on responding to trouble? What kind of person would I be in the face of difficulty? The kind who stomps off the course? Or the kind who grabs a cup of Gatorade, leans into the encouragement of those who have gone before, and keeps stepping?

Anyone who’s run a long race knows that crowds gather at the starting line and at the finish. They also often show up at easily accessible mile markers, but on the steep inclines, the difficult hair pin turns, and the long desolate stretches, the sidelines are often empty. You might see others far ahead on the course or others way behind, but you can feel pretty lonely as you hear the sound of your feet hit the pavement and struggle to control your ragged breaths.

Yet at these times, when the cloud of witnesses has seemed to evaporate and the cheering has gone silent, a still small voice can be heard.

In the world you will have trouble. But take heart, I have overcome the world.

I will never leave you nor forsake you.

See, I have engraved you o the palm of my hands.

And before you know it, you’re rounding a curve and you can hear the roar of the crowd, “Come on, come on! You are almost there!”

Your knees start to lift, your face starts to smile, your pace picks up. You run to join those in front of you, as you turn to those behind yelling, “Come on, we’re almost there!”

This picture — this new picture — of a great crowd of those who have gone before cheering the rest of us on — this one I won’t tuck into that file. This one I will keep out on my desk, on the dashboard of my car, on the doorposts of my house.

I am not a solitary dot on the line of eternity. I am one of millions of dots forming a visible cloud — a collection of those to whom God has been faithful. The expanse of eternity is large enough for all of us, and not so large that I will feel alone.

That won’t keep me up tonight. Not at all. In fact, I plan to sleep in peace.

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such hostility against himself from sinners, so that you may not grow weary or lose heart.”

Hebrews 12: 1-3

Of Gardens and Growth

For Mother’s Day, when my husband asked what I would like for a gift, I asked if he would enlarge our garden, so out he went, shovel in hand, in the rain, to remove the sod layer. The next weekend, he and our son dumped a couple hundred pounds of top soil and manure on the newly exposed dirt and we began to plant.

We put in a few tomato plants, radishes, carrots, and some peas, along with yellow squash, cucumbers, and cantaloupe. We watered thoroughly then walked away.

Literally walked away. For two weeks.

We went on vacation and came back to find that everything had grown– the tomatoes had doubled in size, rows of radishes, carrots, and peas had surfaced, and even our mounds of cukes, squash, and melon had green fingers poking out of their tops.

If you’ve done any gardening, you know that other stuff surfaced as well — grass from the lingering roots, volunteer tomatoes from last year’s crop, and weeds. So many weeds.

I couldn’t get to the garden right when I returned, but last weekend, I put on my gloves, plugged in my headphones, and plunked myself down in the dirt. For over an hour I raked and pulled, shifted and sifted, then hauled the debris to the woods.

By the time I had finished, I had enlisted a couple of those volunteers into service and cleared some room for growth. I grabbed the hose, gave the garden a good long drink, and walked away.

A couple times this week, I bent down, pulled a weed or two, sprinkled some water, and harvested a few radishes, but mostly I assumed my typical gardening stance — watching in awe as seeds sprout, green appears, and red orbs emerge from the dirt.

My husband moved to Michigan a year ahead of me, and when I finally arrived, he was excited to show me that he had planted a couple of tomato plants in a small patch of land at the back of our house. He knew I’d want something to tend to make this place feel like home. Since that time we’ve moved the garden to a spot with more sun, transplanted rhubarb from my cousin’s yard, and experimented with different seeds and plants. Along the way, I’ve learned that growth happens in spite of us. Sure, I’d like to claim credit for the amazing cantaloupes we harvested a couple of years ago, but truly all we did is push seeds into the ground, spray some water, and watch sweet, buttery fruit appear. My mom is still talking about those cantaloupes.

As I’ve watched my garden over the seasons, I’ve experienced my own growth here, too. When I arrived, like a plant dug out of the ground, wrapped in burlap, and shipped across the country, I was wilted, frail, and in need of some attention. For several months I just sat here, recovering. Now, five years later, I’m stunned to discover a network of friends, a satisfying job, and, a whole different rhythm here in our house by the river.

This growth didn’t happen all at once — that’s another thing I’ve learned — it happens in its own time. For a while, I sat buried in dirt and crap, taking in sunshine and water. For whole seasons, I waited for the first glimmer of green to break the surface, and just as I was losing hope, I discovered strength rising from the ground up — all of the energy had been developing roots — a deep, expansive network that would support the growth that was (and is still) yet to come.

This morning I took Chester out early for his morning relief walk and I looked at my garden to see if, after some gentle care yesterday — some more weeding, a sundown drenching — my plants had miraculously doubled in size overnight. They hadn’t. It doesn’t usually happen like that. I can’t quite figure it out — when I am watching for the growth, my plants seem to be standing still, making no progress, but when I look away, when I get busy with life responsibilities and then turn back, ‘suddenly’ it is time to harvest.

All growth seems to work that way. Just a week or so ago, I was introducing a student to the vowels — the names and sounds of a, e, i, o, u. He was really struggling, so unsure of himself that he was tentatively whispering every answer. Then, on Friday, I noticed him swiftly reading words like pin and pine, easily maneuvering the vowel sounds and even taking chances like changing pin to pain to pan. He was high-fiving his instructor and running through the center celebrating his accomplishment. I turned my back for minute, and there it was — growth.

It happens in spite of us — though we often forget to water and we sometimes ignore the weeds — growth happens. You stick a tiny seed into dirt and manure and hope for the best. And typically, our hope does not disappoint us.

Now, I must concede that growth doesn’t always match expectation. One year I was working in the garden, and I pulled up what I thought was a rather large weed, only to find potatoes attached to the roots! I hadn’t even planted potatoes! I guess they had grown from the previous year’s compost. Another time I bought a kale plant and planted it in the garden, thinking it would produce multitudes of kale to support our kale chip habit, but it actually just spit out two or three new leaves each week — hardly enough for a garnish.

When I moved to Michigan, I carried with me a seed of hope that I would get my health under control and maybe find a part-time gig working in a library. I never dared to imagine that I would be able to work full-time as a teacher again. I planted and prayed over that tiny seed, and it was transformed into a life I couldn’t yet see — one that was way beyond my expectation.

I have lots of little seeds of hope that I have clutched in my hand, watered with my tears, and dared, finally, to toss onto the ground. I have released them to the power that miraculously transforms the tiniest of seeds into beautiful realities. I am trusting that despite my carelessness these seeds will be transformed, in their own time, into extravagant fruit that we’ll be talking about for years.

We plant our seeds (of vegetables or of hope) and then we wait expectantly. We water. We watch. We pray.

I keep watching my garden. I am waiting for fresh shelled peas, warm tomatoes, and maybe a buttery cantaloupe. And while I wait, I continue to sow seeds of hope — and I pray that they also will transform into realities I don’t dare yet to dream.

Those who sow with tears will reap with songs of joy.”

Psalm 126:9

Righting the Course

Three years ago at the end of May, my husband and I retreated north, so far north that we couldn’t get a cell signal. We each brought the materials we would need to plan the courses we’d be teaching that fall. Away from the Internet and the daily routine, we found time to go for walks, take naps, eat well, and outline goals and objectives for our in-coming students.

Two years ago, we escaped south — we spent two weeks in Fort Myers and even rented a car and drove south, south, south, until we got to Key West, the southernmost point in the continental United States. We didn’t plan for classes on that trip — no, we’d been particularly busy all year, so we devoted time to beach exploring, CSI Miami binge-watching, puzzling, and pleasure reading.

Last year was the year of the Great British Baking Show — the year of sitting on our couch, the year of grief, the year of remembering how to breathe. We didn’t go north or south — we were doing well to stay right where we were.

This year, in the middle of winter, we marked off this week to head north. Our bags are packed, and we’ll soon be on our way. We won’t be writing any courses this year, but we may continue ‘righting our course’.

We’ve been ‘righting our course’ since we came to this little house by the river. We weren’t really planning on that. We knew it would be a new season with our kids all moving into adulthood and us moving back to our home state, but we didn’t really know how much our lives would be under re-construction.

We knew that we were stepping into change –my husband was leaving congregational ministry and moving into a much different role at a university, our kids were moving on, and I was committing to healing. What we didn’t know was that my physical healing was just the beginning. Our move back to Michigan would be the start of a much more global transformation.

We’d been living a propped up existence — caulking leaks and mending seams with duct tape — for a long time. We’d been moving too fast to make thorough repairs in the moment, so we’d patched up what we could and just kept moving, unaware of the extent of the underlying structural damage caused by years of neglect. My health crisis was the impetus for slowing down and dealing with the repairs, and once we started looking, we kept finding more and more projects. However, since life doesn’t have a pause button so that you can do a full renovation before you move on to the next chapter, our reconstruction has been a work in progress.

In the past five years, we’ve witnessed our children move into adulthood — facing and navigating obstacles, chasing and re-defining dreams, finding and losing love, losing and finding themselves. We’ve watched, supported, and done our best to encourage, while we have at the same time found ourselves figuratively pulling down dated wallpaper, exposing water-damaged drywall, and tearing up old floor boards.

As each project has presented itself, we’ve surveyed the damage with crossed arms and furrowed brows, and have then chosen — sometimes reluctantly — to do the hard work of repair. We’ve addressed our health through different approaches to diet, exercise, physical therapy, and medication under the supervision of myriad medical professionals. We’ve examined our emotions through intentional work together, separately, and with therapists. We’ve explored our work/life balance through experimentation with different levels of responsibility and various forms recreation. We’ve invested in our spirituality by spending time with our congregation, our small group, and our own individual study. And bit by bit, little by little, things are starting to come together.

And, now that we are able to sit comfortably in this reconstructed existence, we are finding ourselves sipping tea, taking walks, and questioning our thinking — testing long-held positions on most every imaginable topic.

Every day it seems, my husband and I look at one another and say, what’s God doing here? how do we feel about that? why do we feel this way? what steps should we take? what needs to shift? how do we still need to heal? what is the root of this problem? what is our part in the solution? where are we going? what are we doing?

We don’t have the answers — just a lot of questions.

This is new.

We have been the leaders, the doers, the deciders for most of our adult lives. We have written the courses, made the plans, and mapped out the journeys for ourselves and others. We have called the shots, made snap decisions, trusted our guts, and driven the bus.

But guys, we found ourselves on a course set for collapse.

And now that we’ve taken stock and submitted to a period of reconstruction, our posture is very different. We are realizing that life is full of nuance and complexity: we couldn’t possibly know all there is to know. We have admitted that we got some stuff wrong, and, we are asking some serious questions.

And the interesting part of all this is that, now in our fifties, we aren’t scared. In fact, I would say that we are energized. We’re reaping the benefits of the changes we’ve made in these last five years, and we are on the edge of our seats, big goofy grins on our faces, waiting to see where the questions lead us.

So this trip north is going to be a little different. We’ve packed sweatshirts and flip flops, notebooks and pens, trail mix and tea, and so many questions. We’ll carry them with us — tucked in our pockets, shoved in our bags, and strapped to the roof of the car. We may take them out and look at them, we may discuss a few, and we may leave a few on the beach among the rocks, but I am picturing most of them will come back with us unanswered. And that does not discourage me, in fact, it’s a relief, because I am reminded that we are no longer in the season of having all the answers.

We have moved comfortably into the season of holding all the questions. And you, know, I’m starting to like it here.

“Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”

John 6:68